by Kendra Hovey
In yesterday’s post I asked Who is going to TEDxColumbus? only to conclude that with a willingness to meet and engage with others, we’ll have to all find out for ourselves. Just maybe, we’ll also find talent and commitment not only on stage, but off-stage, perhaps in the seat next to us.
I’m a four-time attendee and this has been my experience—and I’m an introvert. I’ll give you one example: Cathe. At the 2011 event, Cathe and I were two of six “strangers” randomly selected to sit around a table and have lunch together. While some attendees have loved this idea, others not so much. Our table had a great time, and Cathe is definitely a “pro-luncher.” As she told me recently, “I’ve now got these ideas that I’ve heard and then I’m going to sit with these people and were going to have a wild conversation about it. It’s fantastic. I just can’t believe how interesting it is…. We exchange cards … make a little contact and off it goes…. Honestly, to sit down and not try to convince anybody of anything, but just talk about what you just heard—we don’t do it that often.”
At that lunch Cathe and I exchanged cards, talked, and met-up again, and gradually I learned more about the work to which she has dedicated much of her life. It was about thirty-five years ago that Cathe witnessed a young friend’s descent into illness from an incurable brain tumor. Just weeks after her friend’s death, she read an article about hospice (a rather new idea in the U.S. at the time). She called the facility. The woman who interviewed her—who is still in the hospice movement today—told Cathe that she still had her own grieving to do and to call back in six months. She did, and has worked in hospice ever since—a journey that would take her to the far and open spaces of Africa and to the closer and closed spaces of the Ohio Reformatory for Women.
Hospice work is “doing whatever needs doing,” says Cathe. Maybe it’s talking, doing laundry, cleaning out a cat box; there was one woman who couldn’t eat anymore, “but she loved food,” say Cathe, “she would give me a list. I’d buy the ingredients and from her bed she would tell me how to make it. She just liked the smell of it in the house. Then her family would come over and eat it.”
Sometimes, what “needs doing” is just sitting, simply being there. “That was a terrific lesson for me,” she explains. “I was so sure I wasn’t valuable because there wasn’t any demonstrate-able thing going on. Now I know that is not the case.” Hospice volunteers are more than extra hands. “Illness is isolating,” she says, “hospice says to the patient and the family, the community hasn’t forgotten you, and when a patient dies we keep track of the family for a year…. How do you talk about that kind of care? How do we talk about it?”
Contemporary American culture does not have an easy time with language around death and dying. Cathe’s comfort and straightforwardness is refreshing. It’s also essential for good healthcare: “Hospice care is in essence a conversation. The patient is at the center, surrounded by family and a multi-interdisciplinary group of caregivers. Everyone talks to each other about what is best for that patient.” Not just hospice, it’s a model that would benefit all healthcare.
These elements of conversation and community are something Cathe experiences at TEDxColumbus. It’s why she now tries to attend every year: “I find it incredibly interesting that this is the same kind of thing that happens at TEDx. You put us in the center and all these ideas are spoked around us. With hospice, if you have a caring community and family, we support that. If you don’t have that, we help you create it. With TEDx, if you do or don’t have an intellectual community, we are going to create this community—and then we’re all going to share lunch out of a box!”
Cathe was introduced to TEDxColumbus through Janet Parrott, a 2011 speaker and also director of the film Song of the Soul. This film exists because of Cathe. Having heard about the expertise of hospice work in Africa, she began visiting and learning, and after a chance meeting with Parrott back at home, Cathe said to her, You get a film crew. We’ll go and I’ll show you what is going on in South Africa because it is really hopeful. These are wonderful people and we should tell their story. It was a spur-of-the-moment idea, but as Cathe recalls, “Poor Janet goes: Okay.”
It was a lot of work and a lot of travel. Cathe is grateful for the film and “extremely proud” that it is written, directed, produced and financed entirely in Columbus, Ohio. Her hope is that the film will build understanding about hospice, and also show the competence of the programs in Africa, and this one in South Africa particularly. “People go to Africa thinking we’re going to save them, we’re going to show them things, Africans know stuff,” she says incredulously, “they have a tremendous amount to teach us.”
Cathe is also involved in a Harmony Project program at the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW). The Harmony Project is about “connecting communities across social divides through art, education, and volunteerism,” and it’s about singing, lots of singing. But within that collection of voices are people of different backgrounds, with different needs and life circumstances and the collaboration between them and the gift they give to others with their voices is what makes the Harmony Project transformative, healing, kind of like good quality healthcare.
The program at ORW—one of many within the Harmony Project—offers an opportunity for those “serving a sentence to serve a purpose and be a part of the community.” These words are from founder and creative director David Brown, who also rather deftly points out that community is where these women will one day reintegrate. When Cathe learned of this program, she visited OWR and eventually helped arrange for the choir of female inmates to sing and perform over skype to the children at Joan Marston’s Sunflower House Hospice in Bloemfontein, South Africa. She happened to be there with the children, each one with a life-limiting disease, for the first skype. “It was magic,” she says.
Brown understands that women singing to children may sound like a small thing, but he knows that it has “wonder-working power.” At Sunflower House, when a child dies their name is placed on a sunflower and added to a wall full of other named-sunflowers. The women at OWR have created their own sunflower garden wall, and on each flower is the face of a child that they sing to at the Hospice House.
Hospice can sometimes refer to a building or facility, but always it is a healthcare practice and, as much as it is focused on death and dying, it is a philosophy of living. For me, this is a changed and deepened understanding, and it came by way of two strangers meeting at TEDxColumbus with an openness to talk and to listen.